If he ever gets tired of the entertainment business, Chance the Rapper should consider a career as a fortune teller.
The civic-minded hip-hop star was remarkably prescient at a November 20 press conference, when he cautioned his youthful followers to keep their eye on taxes. “You guys don’t receive the same benefits that a lot of other people do, and your parents pay the same money into the same government taxes,” Chance said. “These are people and things that have a big impact on your lives and how you’re educated.”
Sure enough, the next generation’s recently been hit with a double whammy. On the national front, Senate Republicans backed by President Donald Trump passed a bill that gives billions of dollars in tax breaks to the country’s wealthiest while socking future generations with uncertainty as to how social security, Medicare, and other essential government programs will get funded. And on the local front, it looks as though Mayor Rahm’s planning to create what Chicago most definitely doesn’t need: another tax increment financing district in a fast-gentrifying near-north-side community. The two matters are connected, but let me first deal with the local news.
As Chance said, pay attention—this money will dictate your future. A TIF diverts property taxes that would otherwise go to schools and parks and other governmental bodies into bank accounts largely controlled by the mayor. The money is supposed to fund development that alleviates blight in poor communities, but thanks to loopholes in the state law just about every neighborhood is eligible for a TIF.
At the moment, it looks like Emanuel’s planning to stick one in the industrial area on both sides of the Chicago River near North Avenue—one of the fastest-growing corners in town. It’s called the Cortland/Chicago River TIF District, and it would be located in the area between Webster on the north, North Avenue on the south, Clybourn on the east, and Elston Avenue on the west. The mayor’s already moved a fleet facility out of there to Englewood to prepare it for upscale development. The TIF would abet the process.
Emanuel has taken a program intended for the poor and uses it to benefit the rich. But at the moment, it’s not clear what the mayor’s looking to fund with the Cortland TIF. The city’s conducting a feasibility study to see if the area fits the state criteria for being TIF eligible. But again, the TIF law is so larded with loopholes that such studies are largely formalities.
Alderman Brian Hopkins, whose Second Ward includes the proposed Cortland TIF, says the city hasn’t revealed to him what it’s up to. But he guarantees he won’t let them rubber-stamp the deal.
“Any consideration of extending a TIF district or creating a new one in this area will be part of a public process that I will oversee,” Hopkins says.
Peter Strazzabosco, a spokesman for the Department of Planning and Development, says the proposed TIF “is not related to Amazon.” It is, instead, “a continuation of the implementation” of plans to transform the area from industrial to retail and residential.
But of course that doesn’t mean the TIF can’t be used to lure Amazon to town. As you know, Chicago is vying with 200 other places to be the site of the retail giant’s second headquarters (aka HQ2). In October, Chicago and Illinois officials sent Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, one of the wealthiest men in the world, a proposal packed with tax and real estate “incentives.” With the approval of Emanuel and Governor Bruce Rauner, the plan offered land in the Cortland TIF area as one of eight locations for Bezos to consider. In mid-November, Amazon officials toured the site.
In its request for proposals, Amazon made it clear that not only do competing cities have to dole out incentives, local governments must guarantee there wouldn’t be any legislative roadblocks to making good on the incentives offered. In other words, Amazon won’t commit unless the suitor cities show them the money.
With the Cortland TIF, it seems as if Christmas has come early for Amazon. It’s Rahm’s way of saying “I love you, Jeff Bezos.” Of course, the mayor’s generosity would be backed by money that could otherwise go to dead-broke public schools. (You don’t think Rahm would pay for this stuff himself, did you?!)
Even if Amazon doesn’t come to Chicago, the TIF can always fund some other residential or retail development. Any way you look at it, the city’s once again creating a TIF district in a gentrifying area that will divert millions in future property tax dollars from our schools and other taxing bodies such as the Chicago Park District. Just as the city’s been doing for the better part of the last 20 years. And you wonder why the schools are broke?
Mayor Rahm wants you to think of a TIF as the city’s investment in itself. That is, you take property taxes from the schools today and invest the funds in development that may raise even more property taxes for the schools tomorrow. (It’s the same justification Rahm’s predecessor, Richard M. Daley, gave taxpayers.) In the abstract, I suppose that makes sense. But a TIF district lasts for at least 23 years. In this case, the Cortland TIF would be diverting property taxes from the schools until at least 2041. So the youngsters who may benefit from future increases in property tax revenues won’t be born for another five to ten years. As for the rest of you currently living, tough luck!
In this regard creating another TIF district when the schools are strapped is like the Republicans giving a tax break to the wealthy while threatening to cut food stamps. It’s trickle-down economics: give the rich an ocean and hope a drop or two falls to everyone else. I understand why hard-hearted Republicans endorse such greed. But I can’t fathom why we should put up with it in Chicago. v